EAGAN, Minn. – Stephen Weatherly said the feeling usually comes in the middle of a drive, the wall players can seem to hit because of fatigue.
The Minnesota Vikings’ defensive end was in the midst of the most playing time of his career and the Philadelphia Eagles were driving to start the second half on Sunday. The reigning Super Bowl champions were looking to rally against the defense it exposed in last year’s NFC championship game.
“It’s easy at that point to try and abandon your rush and try to improvise something,” Weatherly said Monday of mentally staying focused during a long drive. “We need a stop now. We need to get a negative-yardage play and you see guys take the inside when they’re not supposed to or go outside, something like that. We just stuck to it and were able to get a crucial turnover.”
Eagles running back Jay Ajayi took a handoff on the 10th play of a tiring drive when he was met by linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter. Ajayi fumbled, Kendricks recovered and Minnesota’s defense made a stand in the eventual 23-21 win.
The sequence, in Weatherly’s mind, helped illustrate the key point in a pep talk from Olympic gold-medal cross-country skier Jessie Diggins. A Minnesota native who helped the U.S. team capture its first gold medal in cross-country skiing, Diggins talked to the Vikings last week.
“She said coming in she doesn’t know much about football,” Weatherly recalled Monday. “She definitely doesn’t know what it’s like to go out there and try to maul someone, especially on defense. One thing she does know is the preparation and what it’s like when you’re in your moment for your sport, and it’s that crucial time and you’ve given everything you’ve had up until that point, but you need more.
“Everyone has felt that at every position; wide receiver, running back, D-line, linebackers, secondary where we feel like we’ve given it all and now that crucial point is coming up. What will you do? She really hit home with that and that really hit with everything.”
Weatherly started for the third straight game on Sunday as he fills in for Everson Griffen. With backup end Tashawn Bower also inactive because of an ankle injury, Weatherly and Hunter had to play through fatigue as the only defensive ends available on Sunday.
Hunter played 55 of the 59 defensive snaps. Weatherly played 54 snaps on defense. Both made several big plays as Minnesota’s defense recovered following a string of uncharacteristic performances.
“It’s always been pretty resilient,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “We didn’t play good against the Rams. A lot of that is my fault, but this team and this defense has a lot of pride, a lot of heart. I think they came out with a purpose this week, to show that we can get back to playing good defense. Hopefully we’ll continue it throughout the year.”
Weatherly had a sack and forced a fumble that ended up with defensive tackle Linval Joseph racing 64 yards for a touchdown. Hunter had a sack for the fifth straight game.
“We knew we were going to be thin at end coming in, so (Hunter) came to me and really stressed conditioning,” Weatherly said. “He actually pulled me aside and we worked on it, just being able to get down and be effective even when you’re tired. Diggins, the cross-country skier who won a gold medal, came and spoke to us late in the week and she just talked about when you hit that wall, what it’s like to push through it. That really resonated with everyone on the D-line, especially with (Hunter) and I knowing we were going to be getting a lot of snaps.”
A day later, Weatherly said he was tired, but everyone on Minnesota’s defense could rest easy knowing it looked more like the unit that led the league in defense last season. The Vikings held Carson Wentz and the Eagles to 364 yards, recovered two fumbles.
Joseph’s defensive score came after Weatherly hit Wentz in the pocket, knocking the ball into the air where Joseph was quick to catch it.
“We played better,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “Game plan was better. Guys executed better. They’re a good team too. They came back and made a run at the end, but we held strong.”
Holding strong, in essence, is what Diggins tried to impart on the group of football players.
“Number one, she did a great job of talking to the team,” Zimmer said. “Honestly, as you’ve probably seen the race and some of the video that she had, it was very emotional. Basically, she talked about how everybody can do anything for ten things, whether it’s ten pushups, or as she said, ten kilometers, but I would count ten strides. Who knows if any of that stuff is a big factor in winning, but it gets you to think about what’s important and how you can overcome when you’re tired, basically about sucking it up.”
Playing a full game was part of Weatherly pushing through his proverbial wall.
“Being a core (special) teamer, it’s kickoff, wait a few plays, punt, wait a few plays, punt return,” Weatherly said. “So, you get time to rest. But being out there in the trenches, it’s fun playing with my brothers on the defense, but it gets to you after a while. Today and tomorrow, especially, it’s all about recovery big time.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings